U.S. Incarceration History Reveals Race's Influences on Gender: An analysis of "No Mercy Here" by Sarah Haley
In No Mercy Here, Sarah Haley describes the history of black women’s experiences in the united states during the times of convict leasing and chain gangs. She explains how the treatment, exploitation, and commodification of black women made whiteness an implied element of “femininity,” perpetuating patriarchal and white supremacist gender norms even as white women became increasingly part of the southern work force and industrializing economy.
Black women endured unimaginable, indescribable pain as the south transitioned from slavery to convict leasing to chain gangs and domestic carcerality. Neither the separation of men and (white) women at prison camps nor the so-called abolition of convict leasing benefited black women. The history of the treatment of black women after the Civil War, the time of convict leasing and chain gangs, is a vital element of the south’s urbanization and economy in general. Incarcerated women served to construct many things for southern “progress,” ranging from roads for automobiles to an antithesis for white femalehood/womanhood. As black women were being assumed/marked as simultaneously “sexual and asexual; ideal objects of domestic, industrial, and agricultural labor; shrewdly criminal and daft; maternal and infanticidal; domestically servile and disruptive, docile and irreverent,” (pg. 7) the identity of “white woman” was maintained as a stable opposite considered vulnerable and in need of/worthy of protection from legal abuse at the expense of black women, especially in the penal system. Haley asserts that the “continued deployment of white feminine sexual vulnerability” was “the most explosive sign of white supremacy,” (pg 5) and goes on to explain how that white feminine sexual vulnerability needed an opposite to keep it stable. Plus it reproduced ideas of morality which contributed to continuing enslavement or incarceration of both black men and black women.
Financial crises threatened white manhood and supremacy as white women began taking paid jobs that gave them more independence in the southern economy. Haley describes the crises, writing, “By the turn of the century middle-class men and women perceived several threats to their economic and political authority and familial security… The protection of white women became a technique for asserting the stability of white manhood in uncertain times” (pg. 56). These men and the state use the criminalization, degradation, and violence against black women, as well as the vulnerability and protection/possession of white womanhood as disempowering social tools. These tools worked to reinforce their own power and white supremacist patriarchal social and domestic structures.
The Georgian law put in place in 1908 that had “women” be sent to a women’s section of Milledgeville State Prison farm excluded black women, placing them in the same category as men, though still expecting feminine labor, too. “The very lack of a racial modifier meant that the law was intended to exclude females/women generally – not specific types of women. All the recognized under the law to be normative females were to be sent to the appropriate site for the imprisonment of women: not the chain gang but the women’s section of the Milledgeville State Prison Farm... The formal codification of ‘female’ as a category defined by whiteness in 1908 reflects the gendered logic of Jim Crow modernity, making de jure what had been de facto differences” (pg. 164). So it is in the legal system of criminal so-called justice that we can evaluate with certainty the construction of white womanhood by separating it, violently, from blackness and black womanhood.
Convict leasing allowed white supremacy to continue after emancipation. We must be so weary and skeptical of reforms, even those that claim abolitionist tones, if they simply (or complexly!) reproduce power dynamics of race and gender. Haley reminds us of this importance with these words: “Yet emancipation did not suddenly produce people perceived as fully human subjects by white society, and the formal codification of humanity was usurped by a host of cultural representations that enabled structures of violence and legal norms to continue to deny black personhood.” This was enabled through racial gendered terror, which can be seen from the ways black women were criminalized and treated with far more violence than white women. Maintaining the distinction between black females and white women was important to upholding patriarchal white supremacy. White women could be seen as vulnerable property that needed protection, and black women could be seen as, well, not women at all. They were used by the state as tools for hard physical labor and tools of reproduction, as black women in convict leasing were raped and separated from their kids (who were also used as bodies for exploitative labor).
The differences in treatment of black women vs white women proves that “womanhood” is not a coherent identity, and that to make it seem that way requires separating races: the horrid state-backed reputation and sexual and physical degradation of black women was the antithesis for white femininity. We can see how this racial separation continues to complicated the definition of “woman” with, to name just a couple, the media’s typical rendering of black women as particularly sexual, and denying black girls and women autonomy and legal access to defending their selves and bodies, such as in the case of Bresha Meadows. The legally and socially enforced differences between black women and white women expose the instability and complicated nature of the so-called gender “binary.” We are reminded of this still, today and in recent history, when we review Beth Richie’s analysis of black women who exhibited normative feminine lifestyles but still subjected to intense patriarchal partner and state violence. As Haley describes on page 19, “Black women’s perceived status as deranged subjects proved to be the fertile ideological ground upon which constructions of normative gender positions flourished.” White feminists should keep this in mind while organizing: white femininity was constructed atop the whipped, brutalized backs of black women who remained enslaved to white households and the state after emancipation. It is the then-and-now denial of black femininity (labeling black women as immoral, docile, hypersexual, asexual, and other contradictions) which allows white femininity to appear so worthy of protection and glory.